Remembering the bungled 1985 Mike Boit Classic

Mike Boit (left) salutes fans accompanied by World 3,000 metres champion Henry Rono after finishing fourth in the 1,500 metres race during the Mike Boit Classic at Nyayo National Stadium in this photo taken in 1985.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • A studious, soft-spoken man whose disarming simplicity belied his competitive instincts, Boit let his performances speak for him
  • Early in August 1985, KAAA announced that on September 10, 1985, they were going to stage an international testimonial race in honour of Boit at the Nyayo National Stadium
  • As days went by, KAAA dispatched its vice-chairman, Joshua Okuthe, to Rome for the final IAAF Grand Prix meeting where the bulk of the invited athletes were competing
  • The few thousand committed spectators who turned up at Nyayo Stadium for his farewell day were roundly disappointed

Rarely have I seen such an outpouring of public goodwill directed towards a beloved sporting icon as I did in the days leading up to the Mike Boit Classic athletic event in 1985.

Everybody wanted to give one of the nation’s longest serving athletes a beautiful ride into his sunset and the Kenya Amateur Athletic Association (KAAA), the precursor to Athletics Kenya, made us believe that they were going to pull it off.

Mike Boit was fully deserving of the honour. A studious, soft-spoken man whose disarming simplicity belied his competitive instincts, Boit let his performances speak for him. He was born to run and to study and that he would become the country’s first athlete to hold a PhD in any field of study seemed a matter of course.

When you met him, you saw before you a man whose searching eyes were always looking for answers to some mysterious questions and his quietness could startle. He was a competitor of no drama, physical or verbal, and even as he raised his arms at the tape in countless middle distance races, the same stoic expression marked his victories and his losses. He was an easy person to like and almost impossible to dislike.
He had started his national running career in 1970 and now, 15 years later, with the crushing disappointments of being unable to compete for Kenya in the Montreal and Moscow Olympics of 1976 and 1980 when he was at the height of his powers behind him, Boit was hanging up his spikes to concentrate on his books. And all of Kenya was eager to say thank you to him. Early in August 1985, KAAA announced that on September 10, 1985, they were going to stage an international testimonial race in honour of Boit at the Nyayo National Stadium. This announcement was met with widespread national approval. Thus came into being the Mike Boit Classic.

Mike Boit holding aloft the gift he received from Kenya Amateur Athletic Association executive committee to mark his retirement from athletics.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The athletics universe closed ranks behind the event. Boit’s compatriot and former world record holder in the 10,000 metres, Samson Kimombwa, said of him: “I think Mike Boit is one of the greatest middle distance runners of all time. I can’t think of any other runner who has run under 1min 45.0 more times.”

And Walter Abmayr, a former Kenya national track and field head coach and distinguished athletics statistician dedicated his annual “Track and Field Best Performances - Kenya” booklet for that year to Boit with these words: “A most outstanding athlete with more than ten years of successful participation in international athletics.”

The first big names KAAA said it was talking to were Edwin Moses, world and Olympic champion in the 400 metres hurdles, Carl Lewis, Olympic champion in the 100 metres, 200 metres, long jump and anchor leg runner of the US 4x100 metres Olympic gold medal team, Daley Thompson, Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon and Emmon Coughlan, Irish cross country great. As days went by, KAAA dispatched its vice-chairman, Joshua Okuthe, to Rome for the final IAAF Grand Prix meeting where the bulk of the invited athletes were competing. His mission was to sign them up for the Mike Boit Classic.

Out of this trip, the list swelled. On the draw was added Calvin Smith of the US. Smith held the world 100m record with a time of 9.93 seconds. By the time people were trooping to Nyayo for the Classic, the names of the following athletes had been released to the media and listed in the programme:

Brian Stanton (USA). He was the American high jump record holder. Jerome Carter, (USA), a perpetual rival to Stanton. Desai Williams, the Canadian 100m and 200m record holder. Steve Scott (USA), who was silver medalist in the 1984 Olympics 1,500m final. Ilray Olver, the Jamaican national champion in the 400m. Henry Thomas (USA), a sprinter who had clocked 10.3 sec in the 100 metres. Darryl Robinson (USA) whose personal best in the 400m was 47.71sec. David Marcus (USA) who had run the 800m in 1min 43.35sec.

Moussa Fall (Senegal), one of Africa’s best known runners over the 800m of the day was also in the draw. Other notable stars on the list were Sudan’s Omar Khalifa who ran the 1,500 metres, America’s Sydnee Maree (1,500m) Switzerland’s Markus Ryffel, (5,000m), Bulgaria’s Dijnatod Eveinvev (5000m), West Germany’s Dietmar Moegenburg (High jump), Poland’s Joeseck Woszola (high jump) and West Germany’s Carlo Traenhardt (High jump)

The top women listed were: Maricica Puica (Romania), Olympic champion in the 3,000m, Margaret Klinger (West Germany), world champion in the 800m and P.T. Usha (India) who had finished fourth in Los Angeles and was considered one of the most promising athletes of the time. Sita Lovin (Romania), Genofewa Blaszak (Poland), Brigitte Krauss (West Germany) and Doina Melinte (Romania) completed the star-studded women’s cast.
If you had been in Nairobi on September 10, 1985, Nyayo Stadium was the place to be. This was a field as strong as the one that had participated in the Jomo Kenyatta Memorial Games in 1979 at the Nairobi City Stadium.

They came to honour a Mike Boit who was a great role model to the country’s youth. At that time, he held a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of Easter New Mexico and two master’s degrees in physical education and in education respectively from California’s Stanford University. He was completing research work for his doctorate of philosophy degree at the University of Eugene in Oregon and was on course to becoming the first Kenyan PhD holder in sports.

Kenya Sportsman of the Year Mike Boit (left) was given a heroic reception by his mother (second left) as his father (second right) looks on upon his arrival at the Nairobi Airport. Boit arrived from US, where he graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Biology and Physical Education.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In 1978, Boit had told the American magazine, Sports Illustrated that when he returned home, he would become an academic and would have no time for athletics. He kept to this plan. He had made his first big mark for Kenya in the 1972 Munich Olympics where he won the 800 metres bronze.
He was a gold medalist in the 800 metres in the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games and silver medalist in the 1500 metres in the following edition of the Games in Brisbane, Australia.

But the few thousand committed spectators who turned up at Nyayo Stadium for his farewell day were roundly disappointed. For lack of competitors, event after event was cancelled. Half of the 20 events listed in the programme went this way. Curiously, only high jump had a full field. The glittering galaxy of foreign superstars that we had been promised and who were listed on the programme turned out to be one big mirage.

As more and more races were cancelled, spectators found themselves doing the unthinkable for so solemn an occasion – booing. It was as loud as it was inevitable. KAAA had led them up the garden path and people were expressing their disappointment in the clearest possible way. In the stands, I felt much for them but even more for Mike Boit. He deserved so much better than this.

Commissioner of Sports Mike Boit leads from the front during the 400 kilometres run from Eldoret to Nairobi aimed at raising funds for Team Kenya ahead of the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Sensing that even more races were going to be cancelled, people started leaving the stadium. The announcer pleaded with them to stay, telling them that the main race featuring the man of the occasion was yet to be held. Mercifully, the crowd grudgingly obliged. People took back their seats. They did this out of respect for Mike Boit. At length, Boit took his place at the start of his race, the 1500 metres.

This was the last time we were going to see him run. Spectators gave him as an enthusiastic a cheer as they could muster. They had been resoundingly disappointed, were depleted of oomph, wanted to go away but still they knew that they were in the presence of greatness. And they had come to celebrate this greatness one last time.

In keeping with the inexorably spreading low-key mood of the day, Boit’s race was slow, like all the previous races. It was won by Steve Scott of the USA, in a time of 3min 43.5sec. Scott was followed home by Kenyans Julius Kariuki (3min 45.9sec) and Peter Rono (3min 47.7sec). Boit himself drew up fourth, in a time of 3min 47.8sec.

Mike Boit, Kenya's 800 metres world superstar, with his wife Ansella Chelagat Kogo, a former Kenyan long jump champion at St. John's Catholic Church, Eldoret during their wedding ceremony. The couple hosted a reception at Boit's farm at Lessos, near Eldoret which was attended by many friends.

Spectators respectfully rose to their feet as he did his lap of honour, intermittently raising his 35-year-old hands in a gesture of goodbye. They clapped for him as he passed them by. Then he reached the starting position and it was all over. The meeting ended in disarray with the announcer talking to people who were on their way to the gates.
There isn’t something more incongruous in public gatherings than when you have to thank annoyed people; your words of gratitude bounce off their hard-staring eyes and glum faces.

As the announcer went on about thanking the people who had made it possible to hold the event, you wished he could just stop. We would have wanted to hear a word from Mike Boit, for that is what had taken us there. But after hugs and more hugs from fellow athletes whose brief words were no doubt wishing him the best of luck in his new season of life, Boit disappeared into the dressing room.

But before he did, I walked over to speak to him. He pleaded: “I am warming down. Please let’s talk later.” I obliged. His face was as inscrutable as his manner was dignified. That was vintage Mike Boit. A man with no malice and lots of charity to whomever he interacted with. What a great sportsman.

Allan Wade (right) of the Olympic Solidarity Movement gives some useful tips to participants in the International Olympic Committee sports leaders' course at Nairobi's New Stanley Hotel. With him is Mike Boit, the Commissioner of Sports.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

The Mike Boit Classic was a big disappointment, thanks to mediocre organization by KAAA. But it did exactly nothing to diminish his standing in our estimation. If anything, by his composure and stoic acceptance that this was how it was fated to end, his personal greatness only seemed to get magnified. Dr Mike Boit is today one of the most respected academics in sports sciences at Kenyatta University.